While in New Orleans the thirteen of us who went down to do disaster recovery work stayed at the North Rampart Community Center, formerly the St Marks Community Center. Built in 1903, the Community Center is an extended mission style building attached to the St Marks United Methodist Church. It is located on North Rampart Street which is the dividing line between the French Quarter and the Treme', the oldest settlement of free black people in the country. The building was repaired from damage it received during hurricane Katrina and was simultaneously fitted with several dormitory style rooms to house future volunteer workers. That's where we stayed. Boys in one room, girls in another, bunk beds, sleep away camp style. Not necessarily the most deluxe accommodations but perfectly adequate for a week of work and not much sleep.
The Community Center is active year round with a full after school program during the school year and a day camp for the children in the area during the summer months. The children who attend the Center range in age from seven to about fifteen. The Center has four programs: reading, computer lab, arts and crafts and swimming. The children are divided into four "classes" : younger boys, younger girls, older boys, older girls. One day during our stay we did some manual labor around the center (moving old furniture, clearing out debris and making space for the children) and we also helped with the kids. I chose to help out in the arts and crafts room.
These kids were so smart, sensitive, attentive and appreciative. We were there for a week and every morning the children would line up on the sidewalk outside the gate to the Center starting at about 7:15 for breakfast at 8. Now, when I think I'm having a bad day I can recall this picture. A picture that is seared into my memory and that will perhaps enable me to gain a new perspective of just how fortunate I am.
The woman who runs the Center is named Joanne, a Deaconess of the United Methodist Church. I asked her about the children, their home lives and their situations.
"Many of them have returned to New Orleans after being dispersed to other locations in the aftermath of Katrina. Most of them are from single parent homes and many of these children are traumatized. There isn't the funding to provide the mental health care that these children need. "
The Center, a not for profit facility, is organized and run by the women of The United Methodist Church. Presently there are about sixty or seventy children who use it's services daily.
"New children are still showing up. I see new ones every week. Sometimes I don't know who they are or where they come from. There's no paper work on some of these children. They're just children. What am I gonna do? Turn away children? They get breakfast and lunch here and their families know that while they're here they're safe."
The morning I worked with the kids in the arts and crafts room the instructor introduced my two fellow New Yorkers and me to the first class, the younger boys.
"Children: these people are here today to help out in the classroom. They're volunteers from New York City and they've come down here to help rebuild your city. What do you say to them?"
Children's voices as one; "Thank you."
My heart caught in my throat and I was hoping I wouldn't start balling in front of a room of small boys. I'm not a childcare expert but I imagine that can't be a good way to start off. Instead I busied myself with the task at hand which was to help the boys string beads and make necklaces. Some of the boys were making necklaces for their moms and some for themselves. Each was happy to have something of their own to take with them.
I'm so grateful, not only for my time as part of the rebuilding effort but also to have had that time with the children. I think about the rising crime and gun violence in these kid's communities and I can't help but think, hope and pray that these kids make it through the next few years unscathed. So trusting, so vulnerable and so at risk.
Bless Joanne and the work she does. Bless the small dedicated staff of the North Rampart Community Center and, please God, bless and keep those children.
When it was mentioned that we would be staying at the Center one day and working with the children I was disappointed. I wanted to be out in the field, hands on, rebuilding the community. I now realize that my short time with those children was hands on, rebuilding the community.